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Choosing a Builder

Building Trouble Shooting

Article Six

Choosing Builders

Business Day: May 2005

This column is brought to you by Peter Allsopp, MD of the National Home Builders Registration Council from 1995-2000 and member of the Estate Agents Board 1996-2000, who is now in private practice providing trouble shooting and consumer protection services to Home Owners who are in difficulties with their homes.

It had to come, I just knew it would. The letter from a builder, complaining about me, complaining about builders.

It took me back to 1995, when we were setting up the fledgling National Home Builders Registration Council (NHBRC). Several builders' associations (but not all) lobbied bitterly that the industry did not need regulation. I remember in 1998 at the parliamentary committee on housing, the Master Builder's Association (MBA) stated that they had been controlling builder's activities for the past 100 years. Yeh right! They were out of the room and the NHBRC was converted into a statutory body.

Please Builders, do not shoot the messenger. The articles written in this series are not intended to bring the building industry into disrepute, the builders within the industry do that for themselves. All we are doing is highlighting the pitfalls that unwary consumers can look out for.

Are my stories fiction? Absolutely not. At Baobab we deal with about 150 builder "rip offs" a year. Each example given over the past months have been based upon real life scenarios where people have been over charged R100 000, been left without water and electricity for weeks, had work handed over that has collapsed within weeks, had their family lives destroyed, and had their pensions and nest-eggs conned out of them. To tell about this is not the fault of the story teller, but the fault of the main characters in the story.

However our builder-complainant did raise several valid points. The main one being, why don't we devote an article to guiding potential consumers how to find a proper builder? Yes great idea.

But where to start?

If you are having a new home built the builder must be registered by the NHBRC. What does this imply? Is the builder qualified to do the work, has he/she passed a stringent qualifying criteria. Well the answer to all the above is NO. Despite having being operational for 10 years the NHBRC still does not have a real qualifying entry barrier. Let me give you an example. A colleague of mine applied to NHBRC recently. Now this is a nice chap, and I am sure he will make a great builder, but in his previous life he was a B. Com, running a very successful paper company. Now he has decided on a life style change and swotted up for weeks on the NHBRC'S technical manual. He went for the entrance "Exam", nervous as a school kid. They asked him one question,

"Do you know what brick force is?"
"Yes it's so and so..", he replied,
"OK, Thanks you're in".

In the early days of NHBRC we encouraged banks to call for builders of extensions also to be NHBRC registered. The idea being that problems experienced, whilst not being covered by NHBRC's warranty, could be reported to the NHBRC as their Act obliges them to regulate the ethical behaviour of builders.

Well a Carte Blanche program has confirmed that no complaints of any nature, even of registered builders are accepted by NHBRC unless it is a new house and unless it has already been occupied.

So sorry guys, NHBRC registration is not the be all and end all of determining if the builder is good or not.

OK, how about the MBA?

Well the name in itself conjures up the impression of grey whiskered, all-knowing old chaps, who have had years of apprenticeship under an even greyer whiskered older man. These guys know how to build 'because they have learned the mystical ways over 40 years.

No, "You are the weakest link, good bye!"

Looking at the MBA's membership list is like a building material's suppliers shopping list. Paint suppliers, carport erectors, paving and pool companies all feature.

Now before the NHBRC and the MBA join together and send a hanging posse after me, I hereby acknowledge that both organisations DO have many good members and DO provide a degree of guidance to home owners. The MBA for example publish the same type of "beware" notices that my articles feature. They also publish a list of builders who make incorrect claims as to their supposed MBA membership.

Both organisations DO hold disciplinary proceedings against their members and both keep listings of de-registered ex-members.

The point I am trying to make is that for the un-knowing public point of view, membership of these organisations does not ensure that their members have qualified through long standing good performance; therefore it would be unwise to believe that just because a builder belongs to one, or both of these organisations, you can be assured of not being nailed. Like one of my clients whose registered builder dropped two tonnes of building rubble on my client's driveway when he lost his case.

There ARE good builders out there, we deal with good builders on a daily basis, and our complainant-builder is also correct when he says that many problems are created through the clients' greed.

What he means by this is that many clients automatically choose the cheapest quote, thinking that anything else is bound to be a rip-off. This is not correct. Let me give you another real example. Owner X has an alteration. He has been a regular reader and knows he must get three quotes. One comes in at R50 000 the other two at around R80 000. "That's it!" he cries "the last two are trying to steal 30 grand off me the swines!"

No, he is wrong, the real price of the job was R80 000, the lowest tenderer has not allowed the correct amounts for electrical and plumbing works, had not allowed for all sorts of items such as temporary toilets, engineering certificates or even painting. If the owner had appointed this particular builder he would have had disaster on his hands within two weeks of the project start.

In another scenario, where we were involved, we obtained six quotes, but all based on correct specification documents that we had drafted. Therefore all the prices were based upon identical criteria. Our tenders came in with two very close at R1, 2million with the rest spread from R1, 3m up to R1,7m. On this basis, we did recommend the lowest quote after we had examined the detailed price breakdown.

So where else can you try?

Another colleague of mine, Trevor Binner has created a novel idea. He has a data base of (mostly small) builders and subcontractors, who he has personally vetted and continues to monitor through ongoing customer feed back. He can be linked by access through the Baobab website (

However the best method of finding a good builder is from personal references. If you are considering a builder get at least three, if not more, references from him/her. Do not phone them, they may be friends or family, go and visit them. Look at the work he has done for them, ask questions about his management of the workers on site, about his payment demands, about how he managed variations or your quirky requests for changes. Please also ask when the work was done and how long it took. We sometimes have difficulty recommending builders as we find a good guy today can have changed his foreman or taken on to much work tomorrow and his whole performance changes overnight.

If you are building in a new complex. Check out the builder's sign boards; ask the Home Owners Association management team for a list of recommended builders who are already working on the estate, then do the personal reference check thing on them.

Treat the selection of the builder like the interview process you would employ for a senior manager in your company. You would not make snap decisions or choose the cheapest salary demanded. You would create a first list and a shortlist. You would do reference checks and you would hold two or even three personal interviews.

So why would you do anything else for someone you are about to entrust 9 months of your family' life and R3 million to?

If you have any queries related to this or any other house construction or defective building product, please contact us, we may be able to answer your questions in future articles.

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